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Whether you are planning a course, designing a training experience, or creating an entirely new educational program, learning goals and objectives should be your starting place. They are also the language you use to talk about your program, your guideposts along the way, and the standards by which you measure your impact. They are the foundation that anchors your educational intervention and helps you make decisions about it. In short, without clear learning goals and objectives, your program will be harder to design, less apt to stay on track, and risk not meeting your expectations.
Learning goals and objectives are not just for educational programs. They are also essential for organizations that want to help employees learn and grow. This kind of employee growth feeds into the goals and objectives of the organization, and should be explicitly articulated and measured.
Before I tell you WHY clear goals and objectives are essential, let’s take a moment to define what we mean by goals and objectives in an organizational context and in a learning experience.
What are Goals?
In an organizational sense, goals are the big picture things you want to achieve to feel like you are successful. They are the things that businesses want to do to meet the bottom line (or the triple bottom line) and that nonprofits want to do to meet their mission.
In an educational sense, learning goals are the broad concepts that you want your participants to explore and understand over the course of the learning experience. They are the areas of knowledge, skills, and values that are included in your program. They are the ultimate result of your educational intervention.
In a business, your goals might be things like:
- Increasing overall profit;
- Meeting customer expectations;
- Decreasing your carbon footprint;
- or Supporting all employees equally.
Your company might pursue training and development initiaives that will lead to these big picture goals, but the training and development will focus on even more specific set of learning goals, like:
- Increasing the customer service skills of your staff;
- Developing your participants’ understanding of diversity and equity issues;
- Training all staff in the environmental impacts of the industry;
- Addressing staff burnout and stress through mindfulness training.
All of thes bullet points are high-level, conceptual goals that are beneficial for any organization to explore. The second set of bullet points begins to get more specific about the goals you might pursue in a particular training experience. However, all of these bullet points can still be considered overarching “themes.” The next step is to get specific about the particular skills, abilities, and outcomes that will lead to these goals.
What are Objectives?
Objectives are the sub-bullets that live under your goals. They are the specific outcomes that – when combined – will lead to the overarching goal that you have set forth for your business or educational program. In the context of training, learning objectives are typically the things that participants will be able to explain, perform, demonstrate, or achieve because of the training.
Objectives can be measured by the S.M.A.R.T acronym. They are:
- Realistic or Relevant
So, for example, if the overall goal of your business is to increase profit, you might set reasonable objectives related that goal concerning how much of an increase you want to see by what timeline (13% by end of fourth quarter, for example).
If you believe you can achieve that goal that by improving the customer service skills of your staff (a sub-goal), this is where training and development comes into the picture. Your learning objectives for a training might include things like:
- By the end of the training, every staff member will be able to cite three “best practices” in customer service;
- By the end of the training, every staff member will demonstrate effective skills for dealing with challenging customers in role-play situations;
- At the conclusion of the training, every staff member will identify 2 customer service skills that they want to improve and work with their supervisor to monitor those skills over the next 6 months.
Take a moment to see how each of these objectives meets the SMART standard, and helps to make the sub-goal of improving the customer service skills of staff more SMART, too.
EXTRA CREDIT: For a deep dive into learning goals and objectives in the educational realm, consider Dr. Edmund Bilon’s text, Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Write Effective Learning Objectives: The ABCDs of Writing Learning Objectives: A Basic Guide.
Why are Goals & Objectives so Important?
Goals & Objectives Set out a Shared Path
Think of goals and objectives like a road or trail map. You don’t just jump in your car and start driving (usually). Instead, you and your passengers typically have a destination in mind. Likewise, you have a route that will get you there. That route is not a straight line – it is a series of choices about which roads you will take, where you will turn, and where you might need to stop along the way. It also includes knowing what you will need to get there – the right kind of vehicle, gas (or battery power), entertainment for the kids; the backpacks, hiking shoes, and drinking water you’ll need along the trail. You can’t drive to Yellowstone if you ignore the map or run out of gas.
By naming your destination, charting out your path, and knowing what you need to keep following it, you can reach your final agreed-upon destination. You also give yourself the tools to get there.
Extending this metaphor to an orgqanization or training program is pretty straightforward. Rather than assuming everyone is headed in the same direction, goals help your organization or training program to be explicit about where it is headed so that everyone knows. Likewise, objectives are signposts, steps, and necessary tools that will help you to achieve that larger goal. Without them, that goal is just a target in the distance with no clear path that will lead you to it.
In a learning environment, goals and objectives help you to demonstrate how you will help learners achieve the bigger goal. We want you to make more sales; in order to do that, we are going to teach you some important skills about customer service and help you practice them. By the end, you should be able to do this set of things, and that should help you make more sales.
Setting a path also communicates that you are approaching your goal with a growth mindset – a belief that the goal is acheivable and that everyone has the capacity to contribute to it.
Goals & Objectives Help your Measure your Progress
Knowing if you have arrived at Yellowstone may seem obvious – you’ll see the majestic landscape spread out in front of you. But if you’ve never seen Yellowstone, how will you know if you actually didnt’ take a wrong turn and you’re looking at the Grand Teton? Pictures of what Yellowstone is supposed to look like will help, as will checking the map to see where you are, and knowing that you’ve followed the route you laid out ahead of time.
Goals and objectives are similar. By setting a clear goal and knowing what it looks like, you are better able to measure whether you have arrived at it. And by adding objectives to that goal, you are giving yourself many more signposts and steps along the way to ensure you stay on track.
Numbers and statistics are an easy way to do this – you set an objective for a 15% increase in profits by the end of the year and you can tell pretty clearly whether you’ve achieved it. But along the way, you also need to measure whether your staff are making more sales and whether they are demonstrating the customer service skills you wanted to see improved. This gives you much more information about why you may have reached your goal (or not). It also allows you to make changes along the way to stay on track for your goal rather than waiting until the end to be suprised (knowing when you’ve taken a wrong turn).
In a learning environment, objectives help you to measure whether your participants are actually “getting it.” While a test at the end of a training could potentially tell you what has been absorbed, having participants actually demonstrate their learning takes it a step further. You are getting more specific about what it will look like, feel like, be like when these objectives are met.
Goals & Objectives Help Ensure Equity in Evaluation
Lastly, when you are clear and transparent with your goals and objectives, you can use them to measure progress fairly. Your evaluation of their progress is based on clear standards that were set forth in your goals and objectives. If they have not met those standards, you can dig in to try to figure out where they veered from the path. You can look for opportunities to get them back on track, or make the tough decision that they are not a good fit. If they have met the standards, you can articulate the path they took to get there as rationale for a recognition and rewards.
As an organization, you can also evaluate whether the objectives that you set forth were SMART enough to help you reach your goal. If not, then you can avoid placing blame on individuals and instead focus on setting better goals and objectives for the future. Individuals within the organization will have the language to talk about your goals and objectives so that everyone is empowered to contribute.
Whether you are designing a college course, training employees, or offering a professional development program, learning goals and objectives are essential. They add transparency, keep you on track, and better ensure your desired outcomes. While it is ideal to express goals and objectives at the beginning of an experience, you can start using this framework anytime to improve how you run your organization or class.
How would your organization, program, or course change if you got explicit about your goals and your SMART objectives?